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"Things to Know"
...about National Park Service policy and the Directives System


  1. What is policy?
  2. Who establishes Service-wide policy?
  3. Who else sets policy for the National Park System?
  4. What kinds of policies has Congress set for the National Park System?
  5. How is NPS policy-making related to Congressís policy-making?
  6. How do NPS regulations relate to policy-making?
  7. What is the 3-tiered Directives System?
  8. How is NPS policy developed?
  9. How do the new documents get approved?
10. How do the approved Directorís Orders get distributed?
11. What happens after the documents are approved and distributed?
12. How will I know what is mandatory and what is merely advisory?
13. What happens if those who make decisions do not comply with Service-wide policy?
14. How do I obtain a policy waiver?
15. May the public participate in policy-making?
16. Where can I find the most current information about NPS policy?
17. Iíve heard references to the "no-impairment" issue. How can I find out more about it?
18. Some of the posted Director's Orders show sunset dates that have expired. Does that mean those orders are no longer in effect?


1. What is policy? A policy is a guiding principle or procedure that sets the framework and provides direction for management decisions. Our policies are guided by and consistent with the Constitution, public laws, Executive proclamations and orders, and regulations and directives from higher authorities. NPS policies translate these sources of guidance into cohesive directions. Policy direction may be general or specific. It may prescribe the process by which decisions are made, how an action is to be accomplished, or the results to be achieved. The publication NPS Management Policies is the primary source of NPS policy. The current edition of Management Policies was approved in August 2006. The policies contained there reflect our management philosophy and are applicable Service-wide. Director's Orders supplement and may amend Management Policies. Unwritten or informal "policy" and peopleís various understandings of NPS traditional practices are never relied on as official policy.

2. Who establishes Service-wide policy? Service-wide policy is issued only by the Director. Supplemental policies, instructions, directives, and other forms of guidance of regional or otherwise limited application that conform with Service-wide policies may be issued by regional directors or associate directors within formal delegations of authority. Superintendents, within formal delegations of authority from regional directors, may set park-specific instructions, procedures, directives, and other guidance that supplement and conform with applicable NPS policies (for example, hours of operation, seasonal opening dates, or procedures for implementing Service-wide policies).

3. Who else sets policy for the National Park System? At levels above the Director, Congress may establish policy as it passes laws that apply to the National Park Service, or the President, the Secretary of the Interior, or the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks (FWS) may establish policy. Regulations issued by other agencies, such as OSHA and EPA, sometimes reflect national policy with which the NPS must comply.

4. What kinds of policies has Congress set for the National Park System? The NPS Organic Act sets broad policies for the National Park System. The broad policies tell us that the national parks have been set aside for the fundamental purpose of conserving "the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein." They also tell us that we are to provide for the enjoyment of the parks "in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Congress has also established broad policies on specific topics such as concessions management and protecting wild and scenic rivers. Congress has included in the enabling legislation for many parks specific policies applicable to those parks, which may sometimes vary markedly from the generic legislation. For example, Congress has authorized hunting in some units of the park system. Beyond the national parks, Congress has also established policies that govern the many program activities the NPS administers to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and recreation throughout this country and the world.

5. How Is NPS policy-making related to Congressís policy-making? Congressís broad, legislated policies are somewhat general and usually do not specify how the end goals are to be achieved. Fortunately, the Organic Act also authorizes the NPS to "regulate the use" of national parks, which means we may develop more detailed policies to implement the overarching policies set by Congress. We have articulated those detailed policies in Management Policies, which govern the way NPS managers are to make decisions on a wide range of issues. If or when necessary, Directorís Orders may modify or supplement Management Policies. Legislation establishing broad policy for NPS outreach programs, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund and historic preservation programs, allow the NPS to develop specific policies to meet the practical management needs of those programs. The latest information on NPS policies may be found online at

6. How do NPS regulations relate to policy making? Regulations generally are mechanisms for implementing laws and for enforcing policies that have been established by the Director. In national park operations, we are most familiar with the NPS regulations published in title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and which are basically detailed statements of how policies prescribed by the Director (or higher authorities) will be applied to the public who use the parks. They are published as regulations because we cannot enforce rules unless we first publish them as a "rulemaking." For example, we cannot issue a citation to a visitor who lets his dog run loose unless there is a specific regulation that prohibits that activity in a park. Once policies are published in this form, they apply to everyone, are non-discretionary, and their violation may invoke a fine and/or imprisonment. We also publish regulations to tell the public how we will administer various programs, such as concession activities, the National Register of Historic Places, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

7. What is the 3-level Directives System? The NPS Directives System consists of internal instructions and guidance documents to ensure that NPS managers and staff have clear information on NPS policy and on required and/or recommended actions. It is intended to reflect the NPSís organizational values of teamwork, delegation to the most effective level, empowerment of employees, accountability, and reduction in overall paperwork. The Directives System is composed of 3 "levels" of documents:

  • Level 1 consists of the policies that appear in the book entitled Management Policies, and which set the broad framework, provide direction, and prescribe parameters for making management decisions.
  • Level 2 is Directorís Orders, which provide more detailed interpretation of Management Policies, delegate specific authorities and responsibilities, and may articulate new or revised policy on an interim basis between publications of Management Policies. The main target audience for Directorís Orders is superintendents and other managerial staff, for whom they serve as an "executive summary" of important policies and procedures.
  • Level 3 materials include handbooks, reference manuals and other documents containing comprehensive information in support of field and programmatic operations. A typical handbook or reference manual will include relevant legislation, regulations, management policies, other instructions or requirements issued through a Directorís Order, as well as examples, illustrations, recommended practices, forms, etc.

In many cases, Level 3 handbooks and reference manuals will look very similar to the old NPS "Guideline" series. They may serve as a source of "one-stop shopping" for comprehensive information about a particular program or function. But they will be more carefully crafted to clearly distinguish between what is mandatory or required, and what is merely recommended. Those who issue Level 3 documents may not impose any requirements beyond what has already been issued in a Directorís Order (or in a statute, regulation, Executive order, or some other higher source of authority), unless the Director has specifically authorized them to do so.

8. How is NPS policy developed? Policy initiatives may develop as a sudden, urgent response to an unanticipated problem or issue, or through a slow, evolutionary process where the Service gains increased experience or insight regarding a problem or issue. Sometimes the initiative does not originate within the NPS, but from people or organizations outside the NPS who have strong interest in how we manage the parks. However, NPS policy usually is developed through a concerted work group and consensus-building effort, involving extensive field review, consultation with the National Leadership Council (NLC), and review and comment by the general public. This effort culminates with the Director signing a Directorís Order. On a larger scale, the 1988 Management Policies underwent a systematic internal and external review over a period of several years, resulting in the 2001 edition. A similar effort culminated with the Director's August 2006 approval of the current edition.

Specific development procedures for Level 2 and Level 3 documents are as follows:

a. The originating office or program area decides who will be the project leader in preparing the document(s). That person should then confer with the Office of Policy about detailed procedures and how to successfully approach the task.

b. A "justification statement" explaining the need for an order is prepared at the earliest opportunity, and sent from the appropriate associate director through the Chief, Office of Policy, to the Director, who decides whether the order should be prepared. Before sending the justification statement to the Director, the Chief usually sends it to the NLC. Any comments from the NLC are attached for the Director's consideration. The Assistant Secretary, Fish, Wildlife and Parks may also review some justification statements.

c. The project leader decides whether to begin the process by doing a Level 2 or Level 3 document. In most cases it will be better to start with the Level 3 document because it is more comprehensive and you will be less likely to overlook a policy or required procedure that will need to be covered by the Director's Order. Also, a review and comment period on a Level 3 document eliminates the need for review and comment on a related Directorís Order if it is already covered in the Level 3 document.

d. The project leader identifies and gathers all of the policies, guidelines, staff directives, special directives, memoranda and other forms of guidance that have been issued on the subject matter.

e. The project leader decides if it would be better to independently draft the document or to convene a small (or large) work group to assist in the effort.

f. The responsible party(s) reviews all the necessary material and prepares an outline of how the new document will be organized. In some cases, a great deal of creative writing may be necessary; in other cases, it may simply be a "cut and paste" job to bring pre-existing guidance documents into conformance with the new Directives System.

g. The Office of Policy should be consulted at key points in the document's development, to ensure that it conforms with the Directives System. Other affected program areas should be consulted if they are not already represented on a work group. Where there are legal implications, the project leader may also obtain informal assistance from the Solicitor's Office. It is sometimes advisable to confer with outside parties (such as partner organizations and "stakeholders") who will be affected by the policies or procedures when adopted by the NPS.

h. A rough draft should be reviewed by knowledgeable NPS staff who will be affected by, and required to implement, the finished product. This can be done as widely or narrowly as the project manager thinks appropriate.

i. A finished draft is then delivered to the Office of Policy in hard copy and in MS Word format.

9. How do the new documents get approved?

a. The Office of Policy and the project leader determine whether to circulate for official review the Level 3 document, or to circulate just the Directorís Order component.

b. When the document meets substance and format requirements, the Office of Policy distributes a draft to the NLC for a 60-day review and comment period.

c. For Directorís Orders that will affect interests outside the NPS, the originating office, following clearance by the Departmentís Executive Secretariat, issues a Federal Register notice inviting 30-day public review and comment.

d. The originating office evaluates all comments and makes any necessary changes.

e. The Office of Policy distributes a revised draft, along with a summary of comments and revisions, to the NLC for a 14-day period.

f. The originating office evaluates all comments resulting from the 14-day review and makes any necessary changes (which generally will not be very extensive at this point).

g. In rare instances, when the 14-day review results in extensive changes, another round of NLC review may be necessary.

h. The Office of Policy "packages" the final document for approval.

i. The Solicitorís Office may be asked to surname the final document, after which it is sent to the Director for consideration.

j. The Director approves (or disapproves) the document.

k. After approval, the originating office may publish a Federal Register notice that the policies/procedures have been adopted and explain the disposition of public comments.

10. How do the approved documents get distributed? Shortly after the Director approves a Director's Order, the Chief, Office of Policy, distributes it to the NLC. NLC members are then responsible for distributing copies to the parks and program managers. In addition:

         The office having lead responsibility distributes Level 3 documents in electronic format and, if preferred, in hard copy. That office may also distribute approved Director's Orders to whomever they think has a need for them.

         Management Policies, Director's Orders and Level 3 handbooks/reference manuals are also published on the NPS Policy website

11. What happens after the documents are approved and distributed? All NPS employees are responsible for knowing and adhering to policies and other requirements that are issued by the Director or by an associate/assistant director who has been delegated appropriate authority.

12. Iím confused by all the different levels. How will I know what is mandatory and what is merely advice? A clear understanding of what is or is not mandatory can be obtained from key words contained in the various guidance documents (regardless of whether those documents are policy statements, Directorís Orders, guidelines, manuals, memoranda, etc.). The key words are: should, may, must, and will. These words are unambiguous; they can mean only one thing. When we see the words must or will (or must not, will not) used in any guidance document there is no reason to ask if it is mandatory or notóit is mandatory. The only question that you may need to ask is whether the person who issued the guidance document has the authority to tell you that you must or will do something. Generally, only the Director issues Service-wide guidance of a mandatory nature. The Director may also delegate to an associate/assistant director authority to issue required standards or procedures (Level 3 guidance), or may delegate to regional directors authority to prescribe requirements applicable region-wide.

13. What happens if those who make decisions do not comply with Service-wide policy? It is important to the future of the National Park System and NPS programs that Service-wide policies and procedures be judiciously and consistently applied. The integrity of the directives system is maintained through employee performance reviews. Failure to comply with established policies and procedures may indicate a lack of knowledge, a lack of thoroughness, and/or unsound judgment and decision-making. It may also indicate insubordination.

Unless specifically stated otherwise, Management Policies and Director's Orders are intended only to improve the internal management of the NPS and are not intended to, and do not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or equity by a party against the United States, its departments, agencies, instrumentalities or entities, its officers or employees, or any other person. However, some NPS policies are simply reiterations of regulations or statutes, and they carry the force and effect of law. Violating those policies could lead to more serious consequences.

14. How do I obtain a policy waiver? Adherence to the Service-wide policies found in Management Policies and Director's Orders is mandatory unless waived by the Director. To request a waiver, a memorandum must be sent to the Director from the superintendent (through the regional director, and through the Chief, Office of Policy). The memorandum should concisely and candidly describe:

  • the issue or problem you are facing, and what you propose to do;
  • the policy for which a waiver is requested;
  • whether the waiver would be permanent or temporary (if temporary, for how long);
  • why compliance with the policy is not possible or practicable;
  • the effects of the waiver on park resources, and steps you will take to lessen or mitigate adverse effects;
  • the likely reaction by other interested parties to the waiver (or failure to waive); and
  • any precedent-setting implications of the waiver.

Any helpful supplemental information should be attached to the memorandum, and the memorandum should conclude with two lines indicating "I concur" and "I do not concur," with a space for the Director's signature. The Director will check the appropriate decision line.

Before formally requesting a waiver, the problem or issue should first be discussed with staff at the Office of Policy, who will help ascertain whether there is some other acceptable way to achieve the desired result. The Office of Policy will also ensure that other NPS offices with relevant responsibilities and expertise are consulted. A waiver cannot be granted if it would result in the impairment of park resources or values, and thus violate the no-impairment clause of the NPS Organic Act.

15. May the public participate in policy-making? The travel and tourism industry, recreational equipment manufacturers, environmental organizations, the visiting public and many others have a strong interest in the way the national parks are managed. They also have a strongly held belief in their right to participate in the decision-making process. This belief is supported by the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires agencies to give the public an opportunity to comment on major policy decisions that will affect them. Prudence and Departmental policy dictate that the NPS seek and consider public comment through Federal Register notices and other selective means as we adopt our Directorís Orders and update NPS Management Policies, just as we routinely do with NPS regulations. However, we do not generally seek public comment on operational matters that are likely to be of no, or limited, interest to the public.

16. Where can I find the most current information about NPS policy? The latest NPS policy documents are posted online at

17. Iíve heard references to the "no-impairment" issue. How can I find out more about it? The NPS is prohibited by law from taking any action that would impair park resources and values, unless specifically provided by Congress. Management Policies, section 1.4 (Park Management) provides policy guidance on this topic.

18. Some of the posted Director's Orders show sunset dates that have expired. Does that mean we should no longer consider them to be a valid source of guidance? No, that is not the case. When the NPS initiated the new directives system, a "sunset date" seemed like a good idea. But we have come to realize that the renewal process imposes an unnecessary and burdensome workload. For this reason, sunset dates are no longer included in new Director's Orders. And this decision is being applied retroactively. As older Director's Orders are updated, the sunset date is being removed. New wording in both cases indicates that the Director's Order will remain in effect until revised or rescinded. NPS staff should continue to abide by Director's Orders posted on the Policy website, even though the sunset dates may have passed.

Updated 8/18/2017